Comfort food, p.25
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       Comfort Food, p.25

           Kate Jacobs
 
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  “You’re barking up the wrong tree there,” said Gus. “She’s the kind of friend who’d climb over your dead body to get to the top of the heap.”

  “I just said she was nice to me,” murmured Hannah. “I didn’t make her a friendship bracelet and offer to lend her my Toto album. Sheesh!”

  “Sorry, I’m on edge,” said Gus.

  “Why do you suddenly have men on the brain?” Hannah mused aloud. “That’s unusual. That’s interesting.”

  “No, it isn’t. There’s nothing to tell.” Gus wasn’t about to reveal her dream to Hannah, the way the water had glistened on Oliver’s broad shouldersand the disarming way he’d gazed at her. That made her want to move closer, closer . . .

  “Nothing?” Hannah asked, interrupting her thoughts. “Or did somethingelse happen this weekend that you want to tell me about? You and Gary Rose? C’mon, you can confess . . .”

  “No, Hannah, the only man on my brain is named David Fazio, and he’s laughing all the way to the bank.”

  Gus went over to her laptop to see if she had received any email messages from Alan about the situation. Nothing.

  “So what’d you think about the contest winner, Priya?” she asked Hannah.

  “A bit under a cloud, I’d say. Or maybe just obsessive. She talked about you nonstop.”

  “I thought she was nice enough. Tired, maybe. But she’s got three kids. She was kind of sweet, really.”

  “Speaking of kids ... what’s up with the girls?” asked Hannah.

  “Ah, right, that. You saw my public humiliation with the rest of the crew. I’m officially a bad mom.”

  “Not true, Gus. I meant where did you leave things?”

  “We’re trying, I guess,” Gus said. “Big talks, just getting some things out there. Aimee feels too much pressure, and Sabrina’s overprotected. Or somethinglike that.” In fact, the conversations with her daughters—there had been another long one on Sunday night—had been tremendously fatiguing, and it was difficult to absorb everything they wanted to say. Mostly Gus felt blamed and worried. But her girls had seemed so hopeful when they were together, as if somehow, even as they were telling Gus to leave them be, she would be able to fix it all and make everything all right.

  Sometimes old habits were hard to break. And sometimes there were no easy answers.

  Clearly Gus required a publicist: she’d come home from the retreat to a phone ringing off the hook. All reporters, hoping to get a tasty quote about being bamboozled. She’d turned off the ringer, ignoring the constant flash on the call display, and pretended not to be home. And she hadn’t botheredto turn on the phone that morning, either. Instead, she put on a pair of well-worn chinos and a faded denim shirt—her gardening clothes, she called them—and went out to spend some quality time with her roses, which, despite being surrounded by thorns, never complained, talked back, or called her out in public.

  “But how will you feel when I can’t afford your pricey rose feed?” she murmured. “Will you still love me then?” She carried a handful of blooms to the laundry room sink to be trimmed and washed her hands before crossingthe foyer to the dining room to choose some containers from her china cabinet. Gus spent more time choosing vases than was necessary that afternoon,because she liked the distraction and because she enjoyed reflecting on the story behind each piece. She had just selected the cut crystal bud vase that had been her great-grandmother’s—which she’d been planning to pick out all along—when the doorbell rang.

  She looked at the clock on the wall: it was well past four. That was pretty much the middle of the workday for a New Yorker, which put the majority of her friends and family out of the running. Her daughters would never have rung the bell, and Hannah pretty much came through the gate between their yards and in from the patio. It wasn’t the day for the paperboy to pick up payment, and the meter reader didn’t need to come to the door. Another writer in search of a story, thought Gus. Strange how when she was engrossed in a news article she’d never spent much time thinking about the people who were quoted, about whether they’d wanted to chat off a reporter’s ear or whether they had to be hounded and cajoled.

  Ding dong! Ding dong! Ding dong! Goodness, thought Gus, she was trapped in her own dining room. She tried to peek out the window to see who was at the front door but she could only make out a tall figure, and when the figure turned in her direction, she hunkered down immediately. Omigod, she was turning into Hannah, just like that. No wonder Hannah had hidden out all these years: the sense of being hunted was overpowering.

  “Gus? Are you in there?” She could hear a muffled voice coming through the door. “Gus, it’s Oliver. Let me in.”

  Oliver. She felt a surge of relief, followed by a heavy dose of irritation. Just what was he doing here in the middle of the day?

  “Hello, Oliver,” she said, opening the door wide. “A patient man doesn’t ring a doorbell four times.”

  “Sure he does,” he said. “He keeps at it until it opens.”

  “So to what do I owe this surprise?”

  “I’ve come to go swimming,” he said.

  Gus’s face went red. “But I don’t have a bathing suit,” she said.

  “Okay,” Oliver said, pausing for a moment to consider what she’d said. He shrugged. “I think you do need a bit of a break to distract you from all the hubbub. Keep your wheels from spinning.”

  Oh, that’s what he’d said. He had come to keep her wheels from spinning.Of course. No one was going to do any swimming. Of any kind.

  “I’m really fine,” she said.

  “Aren’t you even going to invite me into the house?”

  Embarrassed, she stepped back to let Oliver inside. He was carrying a large box.

  “What’s that?”

  “Dinner,” he said. “I made some fresh pasta this morning, then picked up a good loaf of crusty bread and a couple pounds of fresh mussels. Two bottles of Fumé Blanc and we’ve got ourselves a feast.”

  “I’ve already eaten,” Gus said, which wasn’t the least bit true. She had barely eaten any of the breakfast she made for Hannah and had then traded in her coffee for endless cups of tea. Hannah had her all-candy diet; Gus’s version was all-caffeine.

  “Gus, it’s four-thirty in the afternoon,” said Oliver. Of all the New Yorkershe knew—and he knew many—none of them ate dinner before eight. They simply worked long, late hours.

  He put the box down on the counter he knew so well from their live shoots and began unpacking.

  “You can’t just barge in and start cooking,” Gus said, feeling very nervoushaving just Oliver here, without anyone else around. She hadn’t been alone with a man in, well, forever.

  “I didn’t force my way in here,” he said. “You invited me.”

  “But that was just out of politeness. I didn’t mean it. You should probably go.” She picked up a tomato he’d just placed on a cutting board and put it back into the box.

  “Nice,” said Oliver. “That’s pretty clear.”

  “It’s not the right time, Oliver. I’m just not ... ready for this kind of thing.”

  “There’s not ready,” said Oliver, “and there’s running away. It’s fine to wait, Augusta, for the right guy, but you still have to recognize him when he shows up.”

  “Do you know how old I am? I could be your ... big sister.”

  “I don’t have a sister,” he replied. “Just two brothers.”

  “You know what I mean,” she said, repacking a clove of garlic. “I’m older. You’re younger.”

  “We’re basically both in our forties,” he said. “What’s the difference?”

  She felt flattered and considered—just for a moment—letting him think her age still began with a four.

  “I’m fifty,” she said flatly. “What do you think about that?”

  “Fifty is fabulous,” he ventured. “Fifty is nifty. Fifty is a number and guess what? Oliver Cooper doesn’t care.”

  “But I do,” said Gus. “It’s unseemly.”<
br />
  “Gus, I’m a grown man. I’m not a high school freshman with a crush on my teacher. You are the classiest, most stimulating woman I have met in, well, ever.”

  He put his hand over hers inside the box and gently coaxed the garlic clove from her fingers. “And we love to cook together,” he said. “I don’t see how it has to be any more complicated than that.”

  Uncertain, Gus moved to the other side of the island, putting a barrier between them.

  “I don’t know,” she began. “There are the girls, for one thing.”

  “Right, right,” said Oliver. “The girl who’s going to get married, maybe, and the girl who is saving the world’s agriculture. I can see how you going on a date is really going to blow up their world.”

  “And I have to sort out my finances.”

  “I heard you when you said you didn’t have time for a date,” he said. “I thought I’d bring a date to you. I’ll cook and clean. You can sit at the table with your abacus.”

  “It’s been a real blow,” she said. “Who knows what’s going to happen if the show isn’t renewed?”

  “Worrying ahead of time won’t change the outcome.” Oliver strode over to the island and leaned across. He lowered his voice to a barely there whisper. “Look, I read the CookingChannel blogs. I know I’m good-lookin’. ‘Smokin’ hot,’ if I may be so bold as to quote cyber fan crackedpot-one-twenty-two.”

  In spite of herself, Gus began to laugh.

  “I kid you not,” said Oliver. “I printed out that puppy and put it on the fridge. Makes me feel good when I’m reaching in to overindulge in a hunk of Brie. You have a little following yourself, by the way.”

  “So okay, you make dinner, and that’s it.”

  “And a kiss,” he said. “Just one kiss. That’s all I ask. Then send me on my way and we won’t even talk about it again.”

  It was all so silly, really, but it felt good. The attention. One dinner couldn’t hurt.

  “Okay,” she said. “That’s it.”

  “Let’s do the kiss now,” he urged. “Get it out of the way. Then we won’t worry about mussel breath.” He slid around the island so that he was next to her.

  “Okay,” Gus said, feeling a little breathless. Should her eyes remain open or closed? Should she lean her head back just so or wait for him to bring his hands up to her face?

  Oliver moved closer, ever so slowly, and her eyelids lowered. She could barely keep still, the anticipation was delicious and he smelled so very good . . .

  He pecked her on the cheek. Quick, dry lips on and off.

  “Oh!” cried Gus, her eyes snapping open, disappointment and embarrassmentflooding through her. “I thought—”

  “Aha,” Oliver said, quickly pulling Gus to him and placing his mouth firmly on her own, increasing his pressure ever so gently.

  “And just one more,” he said, breathing into her. “I probably should have told you I’m a tough negotiator.”

  peas in a pod

  24

  He Was good at twisting her arm, that Oliver. Not that she’d really minded, of course. Oliver had parlayed his kiss into the wonderful dinner of mussels, a trip to the movies on Thursday that was mostly about making out in the dark, an afternoon of gardening the following Monday, a “field trip” to the Culinary Institute of America on Wednesday, and another jaunt to the Union Square farmer’s market on Saturday.

  “It’s June,” he said. “Endless New Jersey blueberries and maybe even some strawberries. If we’re lucky.”

  “Okay,” she said. “Tonight is very important to me.”

  Oliver nodded, as though he was hearing this for the first time, when in fact Gus had been talking about Aimee and Sabrina arriving for days now. She’d spoken several times with her daughters since the retreat but had taken care to tread lightly, asking questions when warranted but trying not to push. Individually, she had asked them to come up to the house and stay the night before Sunday’s show, which would be the first time since the retreat that Eat Drink and Be would air. It was their opportunity to prove that they truly could pull together as a team and produce an engrossing, chaos-free hour of food television. Priya Patel, as the winner of the contest, had been given a role in helping to choose the menu, and, in recognition of her personal beliefs, the show was going to be fully vegetarian. Not even any seafood, which Carmen hadn’t taken lightly.

  But tonight—Saturday—Gus didn’t have the time or the inclination to think about her television program. Both of her daughters were arriving home and it was a chance for a new beginning.

  Aimee and Sabrina arrived separately, each taking a cab from the train station,though within minutes of each other. Without knowing it, they’d been in separate cars on the same train and were somewhat peeved to discover the presence of the other.

  “Does Mom know you’re here?” Aimee asked as they met on the step in front of the manor house’s front door. She had convinced herself—though Gus hadn’t said so—that her mother wanted to spend some time alone with her, one on one.

  “She and I are going to talk about the wedding,” said Sabrina. “Why are you here?” Sabrina was under the impression that Gus wanted to talk about dresses and invitations, though in reality Gus had not mentioned anything about it.

  Gus, who had heard the taxis come up the long driveway, opened the door while the two nattered, a collection of spoons in her hand.

  “Don’t you two look lovely!” she said, although both of her daughters were dressed all “casual Saturday,” Aimee in a plain white top over a pair of jeans and Sabrina in a fitted turquoise shirt and chocolate-colored capris. Gus, on the other hand, was wearing a silver wrap shirt that tied to the side and a slim pencil skirt in a light green crepe, with a pair of gorgeous Jimmy Choos. Her hair, which she’d just had colored a bit lighter than its usual butterscotch color, had been blown out that afternoon.

  “You look great, Mom,” Aimee and Sabrina said in unison, as their mother stepped back into the foyer to let them inside. The chandelier in the formal dining room was turned on, though dimmed, and the rosewood diningtable was spread with the good linens, and four places were set with the very best plates and glasses.

  “Wow, Mom, you went all out,” Sabrina said, putting down her hobo bag that was heavy with bridal magazines and looking forlornly into the room. Aimee placed her canvas tote carefully on the foyer table and stared.

  “Of course,” Gus said, putting one spoon at each place. “This is a very important dinner. I wanted to get it just right.”

  Aimee felt as though she might just cry. “Who’s coming?” she asked.

  “The two of you, of course,” said Gus. “Now let’s go into the kitchen. There’s something I want to show you.”

  But there was no one in the room other than Salt and Pepper, loungingon the wing chairs in the bay window, one cat snoozing and the other cleaning its paws with commitment to the task. The smell of pot roast hung in the air, rich and fragrant, and a pot boiled on the stove. Potatoes, most likely.

  “What do you think?” Gus said, looking expectantly into their faces.

  “Of what?”

  “This,” she said. “It’s Sunday dinner like we used to have it.” She led Aimee and Sabrina over to the counter, which was covered with mixing bowls holdingoats, cocoa, chocolate chips, flour, and eggs at room temperature.

  “We’re going to make a birthday cake,” said Gus. “For your father.”

  “His birthday was months ago,” said Aimee.

  “So we’re a little belated,” replied her mother. “About eighteen years and a few months.”

  “Dead people don’t eat cake,” said Sabrina.

  “No,” replied her mother. “But the living do.”

  Gus handed each of the girls a wooden spoon. “Let’s celebrate for once,” she said.

  “Like remembering the good times?” asked Sabrina.

  “Sure,” said Gus. “We’re going to honor your dad, and we’re going to honor ourselves.”

>   “What about the bad times,” said Aimee, “and all the stuff that happenedat the resort?”

  “We’re going to honor that, too,” said Gus. “Everything all together, everythingthat gets us to where we are tonight. Even all the mistakes I’ve made.”

  Together, as a family, they mixed the ingredients and greased the pans, put the batter in the oven, and then made a simple icing out of butter, confectioners’ sugar, and vanilla beans. There were no cameras, no need for witty banter, no one else to distract their mother’s attention. And all the while, the pot roast simmered, making their mouths water.

  “This was your father’s favorite meal,” said Gus. “And it’s almost ready. But there’s one last thing.” She took the girls into the dining room and popped open some champagne, quickly pouring into four crystal flutes, handing a glass to each of her daughters and putting one at the fourth place on the table.

  “Christopher always had a place at our table and he always will,” she said. “Even when other people can’t see him here, we’ll know, won’t we?”

  Aimee and Sabrina nodded.

  “I’d like to make a toast,” continued Gus. “To Aimee, whose good deeds and hard work I’ve always seen but always assumed you knew how much I appreciated them. I want you to know that I am so very proud.” She took a sip of champagne. “And to Sabrina, who’s not a baby anymore, but a wonderfullycreative woman with endless potential. You’re all grown up and gettingmarried, and I’ve never said congratulations.”

  “Mom,” said Aimee. “I’m sorry for embarrassing you at the retreat.”

  “I can’t say I enjoyed that,” Gus said. “But even the painful things can be part of the plan.”

  “Thanks, Mom,” said Sabrina. “I brought some wedding books to show you tonight but I want you to know that I’ve talked it over with Billy and we’re going to pay for our wedding ourselves.”

  Sabrina had been surprised, when she returned from the retreat, at just how thrilled she was to see Billy and have him immediately sit down and want to hear all about her adventures before he even told her about his own weekend. She’d felt newly excited as she and Billy had looked at wedding dates, and talked about the life they wanted to lead together. About staying in New York, maybe moving to Brooklyn, and setting up Sabrina in her own studio as Billy continued to jockey with other execs. She’d pledged to take up golf, and he agreed to dye his hair whenever it eventually turned gray. They’d truly begun to connect.

 
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